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Federal Judge Sours on Fight Over California Strawberries

A federal judge isn't convinced a renowned plant scientist stole strawberry strains from produce giant Driscoll's when he opened a competing business.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) --- A quarrel over lucrative California strawberry strains withered in court Tuesday after a federal judge picked apart a corporate seller’s patent infringement lawsuit against the former chief of a legendary breeding institute.

Driscoll’s Inc., the self-proclaimed “world’s fresh berry leader,” claims when Douglas Shaw split from the University of California in 2014 to form his own business, he took some of the company’s proprietary strawberry varieties. In its lawsuit, Driscoll’s says Shaw used at least four of its strains to crossbreed a competing brand of strawberries.    

The case stems from an underlying dispute between University of California, Davis, and Shaw, in which a federal jury found Shaw stole plants to kickstart his strawberry startup. Shaw and another renown UC Davis researcher started California Berry Cultivars and began producing varieties without the university’s consent.

UC Davis responded with a conversion and patent infringement suit and the jury eventually found Shaw infringed on nine strawberry patents. Under a settlement, Shaw agreed to return certain plants and seeds and allow UC Davis to test future varieties for university-owned DNA.

Now Driscoll’s says it too was a victim of theft, pointing to witness testimony and exhibits from the trial that it contends prove Shaw used at least for of its patented varieties at his California Berry Cultivars lab. The company claims the four strains --- Camarillo, Amesti, Lusa and Marquis --- were in fact developed at its Central Valley lab.

In the lawsuit filed in 2019, Driscoll’s accuses Shaw and California Berry Cultivars of eight total claims ranging from patent infringement, conversion and unfair competition.

“Shaw and California Berry Cultivars…have had and still have, possession of progeny that resulted from unauthorized crossbreeding with Driscoll’s proprietary strawberry varieties,” the complaint states.

While UC Davis’ lawsuit against Shaw grew into a high-profile trial, Driscoll’s’ isn’t yet coming to fruition.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley tossed all the patent allegations and let just one claim for declaratory relief survive. He cast the complaint as vague, saying Driscoll’s didn’t clearly allege when or how Shaw “personally took part in the commission.”

“Driscoll’s therefore fails to adequately plead sufficient facts to find Shaw personally liable for patent infringement,” Nunley’s 16-page order states.

Nunley, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012, did give Driscoll’s 30 days to amend the series of dismissed claims. Neither Driscoll’s nor its lawyers at Morrison and Foerster of San Francisco responded to a request for comment by press time. Morrison and Foerster also represented UC Davis in its case against Shaw.

The legal fights over strawberry breeding come as the fruit continues to be a major cash crop.

According to the most recent state data, growers exported $2.2. billion worth of strawberries in 2019 making it the state’s fifth most valuable crop. The Golden State produces an estimated 90% of the nation’s total strawberry crop, with over half of all patented varieties owned by the University of California.

California farmers pay less for strawberries developed at UC Davis and get access to new varieties before out-of-state growers. During the previous trial in the Northern District of California, UC Davis administrators testified that it would be difficult to raise funds for the strawberry breeding program if “it looks like we don’t have control over our own IP [intellectual property].”

Driscoll’s patented the first strawberry variety in 1958 and continues to produce new strains through its private plant breeding companies. Driscoll’s licenses independent growers in places like Oxnard, Santa Maria, Salinas and Central Mexico to use their intellectual property but it ultimately packages and sells the fruit under its familiar label.

Follow Nick Cahill on Twitter

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